Monday, July 13, 2020

Crossing the Threshold

by Caroline Lawrence

When I first started writing, I didn’t know how to write plot. Then I discovered story structure principles used by Hollywood script gurus like John Truby, Christopher Vogler and Blake Snyder of Save the Cat! fame.

It was a major breakthrough for me.

At first I just used story structure as a guide to keep me on track.

Later I used story structure to help generate ideas.

But over the past few years I’ve come to realise that story structure is not just a tool of good storytelling; it’s the KEY to good storytelling.

At its most basic level, storytelling consists of two beats: The Desire and The Battle.

At slightly more advanced levels there are additional beats like The Problem, The Opponent, The Plan, The Revelation and The New Level.

At its best, storytelling includes fun beats like The Rubber Ducky, The Mentor, The Talisman, The Dance, The Miniature and Crossing the Threshold.

One of the elements I am currently obsessed with is that last beat, the one called Crossing the Threshold.

In many movies there is often a moment when the protagonist must leave their ordinary world and enter a world of adventure, usually on a journey or a quest for knowledge or a reward (i.e. The Desire). Think of The Wizard of Oz. A terrifying tornado lifts farm girl Dorothy out of black and white Kansas and deposits her in technicolour Munchkinland. In the first Harry Potter movie, Harry has to push a trolly through a brick wall at Platform 9 and ¾ to get on the Hogwarts Express. In The Matrix, Neo takes the red pill and melts into a mirror. This is borrowed from Jean Cocteau’s film Orphée, based on the Greek myth of Orpheus.

In the Pixar's Up, Mr Karl Frederickson flies away from his ordinary world in a house attached to a thousand coloured helium balloons. Remember how WALL-E, in pursuit of Eva (his Desire) grabs onto a rocket and passes through a crust of junky satellites before fizzing through Saturn’s rings? Epic!

Sometimes Crossing the Threshold involves crossing an actual threshold. In the first Hunger Games film, the camera lingers on the train door. The train door! That’s because that single step up will take Katniss out of her ordinary world and into the world of adventure. The moment she steps on the train she has left drab District 12 and enters a world of colour and abundance, in short she is in the Capital. This transfer is reinforced by a long shot of the train snaking through wooded mountains to the big city. There are many crossings of thresholds in the first Hunger Games movie. I counted at least half a dozen. 

In Paddington, my favourite film of 2014, the bear from darkest Peru crosses no fewer than a dozen mini-thresholds, including the actual threshold of the Brown’s house. The writer/director, Paul King, knows the power of crossing the threshold which is why the camera lingers on Paddington’s paws stepping over it.

Sometimes there are Threshold Guardians, another fun trope. Threshold Guardians are people or creatures stationed at the portal between one world and another to make sure the hero really deserves to pass through. I always think of the old man by the bridge in a hilarious scene from Monty Python and the Holy Grail: ‘Stop! Who would cross the Bridge of Death must answer me these questions three, ere the other side he see.’ 

Sometimes the threshold is to keep bad things out. This is the premise of many horror stories including Alien and Jaws.

Sometimes Crossing the Threshold marks the end of Act One. Or The Point of No Return. Or the beginning of the Battle. Sometimes the best Crossing of a Threshold comes right at the end: The Shawshank Redemption, Thelma and Louise, Blade Runner

Why do we like this beat so much? I believe it is because everyone who ever lived can identify with it. We cross thresholds a dozen times a day, whenever we leave a room, a house or even a town or country. We also cross major Thresholds in our lives. When I visit schools, I ask the kids to tell me the Seven Major Thresholds they have crossed (or will cross) in their lives. ‘What’s the first threshold you ever cross?’ I ask. ‘The first time you leave a place you feel safe and go into a strange and unknown world?’

They all get it: When we are born! And the last threshold we ever cross? Presumably when we die. As Peter Pan says, ‘… an awfully big adventure.’

Our lives are a succession of journeys, some big and some little. Strung all together, they make up our life’s journey.

To discover more about this trope and others mentioned in this blog post, dip into my book How To Write a Great Story, delightfully illustrated by Linzie Hunter, who did all the illustrations on this page. 

Wednesday, May 27, 2020

Ancient History Quiz (hard)

Molossian Hound, British Museum
Recently I was asked to write a quiz for a kids book site based on my first two Time Travel Diaries books. I sent them a quiz which they thought was TOO DIFFICULT. So I am posting it here. 

How well will YOU do? 

This quiz is based on some of the strangest facts I have come across while writing my first two Time Travel Diaries, the first set in Roman London and the second in Ancient Athens. If you dont know, have an educated guess! Answers at the bottom. 

1. The enamel in a skeleton’s tooth can sometimes tell you
a) where the person grew up
b) what colour their eyes were
c) what part of the world their mother came from
d) all of the above 

2. Athens was famous for producing some of the world’s most famous playwrights. Which of the following died after being attacked by dogs?  
a) Aristophanes (author of The Birds, etc)
b) Euripides (author of Medea, etc)
c) Aeschylus (author of the Oresteia etc)
d) Sophocles (author of Oedipus Rex, etc)

3. What did the philosopher Socrates use to slice a hardboiled egg?
a) A spear
b) A hair 
c) A fork
d) A stylus

4. The word gymnasium comes from the Greek word for
a) naked
b) athletic
c) muscular
d) exercise

5. Londinium (modern London) was founded by 
a) The Celts
b) The Greeks
c) The Romans
d) The Saxons

6. Certain animals frightened away evil spirits and were therefore used to decorate jewellery, clothing, walls and other objects used by Romans. Which animals were NOT used this way by the Romans? 
a) snakes
b) sharks
c) leopards
d) dogs

7. Which of the following fascinating objects was NOT found in Roman London?
a) An ancient version of a Swiss army knife
b) two pairs of leather bikini bottoms
c) an ivory knife 
d) an amber amulet in the shape of a gladiator’s helmet

8) The Roman god Mithras was popular from the first to third centuries AD. Which of the following groups people were his most faithful followers? 
a) high-ranking soldiers
b) retired soldiers
c) men
d) all of the above

9. The god Mithras wore strange clothes. Which of the following was NOT in his wardrobe? 
a) a Greek helmet 
b) a flapping cloak
c) leggings
d) a floppy hat like a Smurf

10. Today you can still visit the foundations of London’s Mithraeum, where the god Mithras was worshipped. Which American company restored it to its original position deep below their London branch and offers free access every day but Monday? 
a) Microsoft Corporation
b) Bloomberg LP
c) Google LLC
d) Walt Disney Corporation

Want to know more? Read or listen to Caroline Lawrences first two Time Travel Diaries. And check out her other 30+ historical novels for kids on her website:


Answers: 1 = d (using DNA and isotopes); 2 = b (When he was an old man, Euripides was savaged to death by Molossian hounds); 3 = b (Plato has Socrates tell of using a hair to slice an egg); 4 = a (because Greek men exercised without clothing); 5 = c (London started life as a Roman trading post around AD 50); 6 = b (No shark has ever been found on Roman jewellery); 7 = a (something like a Swiss army knife WAS found, but not in London); 8 = d (In fact we think only men were allowed into his temples); 9 = a (Mithras is never shown with a Greek helmet); 10 = b (You can find London’s Mithraeum in the European headquarters of Bloomberg LP by Bank tube station)

Thursday, March 26, 2020

Historical Fiction for Kids

Historical fiction can do much more than bring dull names and dates alive; it can spark a lifelong passion. What got me into history and Classics was a book I read aged 18. It literally changed my life. 

My fave historical novels are those which combine historical accuracy with a great story and compelling characters. 

Here is a list of ten of the best, all suitable for kids or YA readers.

1. The Last of the Wine by Mary Renault 
Classical Athens (c. 430 - 400 BC) ages 14+
A gripping tale of a boy growing up in Classical Athens during the time of the philosopher Socrates and with the Peloponnesian War as a backdrop. This book changed my life because it made me realise how fascinating history could be. Mary Renault is the Queen of Historical Fiction. She is my idol.

2. Master and Commander by Patrick O’Brian 
Nelson’s Navy (early 1800’s) ages 14+
If Mary Renault is the Queen of Historical Fiction, then Patrick O’Brian is the King. Almost as fluent in Greek as he was in Latin and most fluent in the language of ships and sailing, O’Brian is another one of my idols. My husband and I knew we were ‘meant to be’ on our first date nearly thirty years ago when we both named his Aubrey/Maturin series as our favourite books of the moment. My husband often says, ‘In Patrick O’Brian, a storm is more exciting than a battle, and a dinner party can be more entertaining than either of those.’ Master and Commander is the first of a 20-book series.

3. True Grit by Charles Portis 
Wild West (late 1800s in America) ages 10+
Mattie Ross – deadpan, devout and determined – is one of the great heroines of any period, and she’s only 14. Both movie versions were good, but this better than both rolled up together.  This is one of my top books of all time: ‘Fill your hands’ with it! The audiobook read by Donna Tartt is perfection. 

4. The Once and Future King by T.H. White 
Arthurian England (c. 500 AD) ages 8+
There are lots of fab books about King Arthur (like those of Kevin Crossley-Holland and Philip Reeve) but this one will always have a very special place in my heart. It is the closest to fantasy of any of the books on this list, and it is pure magic.

5. The Eagle of the Ninth by Rosemary Sutcliffe 
Roman Britain (c. 100 AD) ages 10+
Densely-written evocative depiction of Britain in the Roman period. Colder, grittier and with much more blue woad than my Roman Quests series, also set in Roman Britain. 

6. Little House on the Prairie by Laura Ingalls Wilder 
American Pioneer West (late 1800s) ages 10+
The covers make them look babyish but they are most definitely not. Adults will love them, too. This is a vividly-told, clear-eyed reminiscence of a pioneer girl. Moving, quietly dramatic and humbling. Best of all, there are seven more books in the series.  

7. The Spanish Bride by Georgette Heyer 
Europe during Peninsular Wars (early 1800s) ages 14+
Based on the true story of a Spanish girl during the Napoleonic wars who sought refuge with British troops. She marries a British soldier, impresses everyone with her beauty and bravery, learns English in London and finally accompanies her husband on the Waterloo campaign for the story’s climax. My husband loves this book so much that he reads it yearly. 

8. Blitzcat by Robert Westall 
England during WWII (1940s) ages 8+
Great story about a cat during the Second World War by the same author who gave us The Machine Gunners. This is a story that has stayed with me, as all great stories do. Animal lovers will love it because he really gets into the head of a cat. 

9. My Family and other Animals by Gerald Durrell
Greek isle of Corfu (1930s) ages 8+

Supposedly this is a biographical account of the childhood of the conservationist Gerald Durrell and therefore not strictly fiction, but much of it is embellished and I love it so much that I’m going to include it on this list. It bears very little resemblance to the 2016 ITV series which is more about his mother. This one is about the joy of nature, life and family. Try the first few chapters. You’ll be hooked. 

10. I am David by Ann Holm 
Europe (late 1920s) ages 10+
A boy escapes from a concentration camp in a nameless country. With nothing but a map and a compass he crosses Europe in search of the mother he has never known. He is wary, distrustful, older than his years. And yet in many ways he is a baby, with his journey across Europe a kind of rebirth. Full of sensory detail and tiny joys as well as tragedies, this is the perfect story to put our current problems in perspective! 

Happy Reading! 

Caroline Lawrence is the author of over 35 historical novels for kids aged 7-14. Start with her first, The Thieves of Ostia, or her most recent, The Time Travel Diaries. Check out her website HERE

Wednesday, March 18, 2020

Mule vs Volcano

When I go into schools and stay on to do a writing workshop, I almost always set a task of writing a story called ‘Escape from Vesuvius’. There were at least 20,000 people living around the volcano in the first century AD and I reckon each one of them had their own story. We always start by listing the seven plot beats which I have adapted from Hollywood script guru John Truby. Sometimes we start with the hero’s weakness – or Achilles Heel – which will give us the lesson learned AKA step 6, The Knowledge. At St Lawrence Junior School yesterday we were running short on time so we started with his problem: volcano! Acting as the show-runner in a TV writers’ room I got the kids to brainstorm ideas for our hero’s gender, age, name and skills. We voted on them and quickly mapped out the basic plot. If possible I try to get them to come up with a subtitle and in this case we voted for Mule vs Volcano. We had just enough time for a few of the children to read their first paragraphs and they were great. 

But this morning I took a few hours to write my own version. Here’s what I came up with. 

Escape from Vesuvius: Mule vs Volcano 
by Caroline Lawrence 
(with the help of year 4 from St Lawrence Junior School)

It started like any other day. But that was the day I learned an apple can save your life. 

I woke at dawn, slipped on my tunic and splashed water on my face from the jug beside my bed. Then I let myself out of the front door and ran to the baker’s shop. Although our baker makes deliveries, I like to run whenever I can. Most afternoons I train in the palaestra of the Stabian Baths but I like to run first thing in the morning too, when the world is still cool and fresh and the sun is just rising. I run barefoot along the smooth pavements of my town, Pompeii. The soles of my feet are hard as leather. I usually take the long way round to the baker’s, then come back with three warm round loaves under my arm.  

My name is Maximus and I am sixteen years old. My household is small. Just me and my aged parents. We used to have a slave but never got around to replacing him. Our needs are few. My mother can only walk a few steps at a time but she weaves happily in her high-backed wicker chair while my father teaches me to speak eloquently in Greek as well as Latin. 

In the evenings I read passages of Homer’s Iliad or Odyssey to my parents. My favourite story is the one at the end of the Iliad where Achilles chases Hector around the walls of Troy. I always hope that somehow this time Hector will escape, but of course he never does. The words of the poem are etched into my brain like letters in a wax tablet. That story is like one of Plato’s forms: it exists somewhere outside our world, on a higher level. 

Sometimes when I run, I recite that passage. It is as if I am Hector, running from Achilles. 

On that fateful day, I was having a lesson with my father in the garden. My mother sat nearby, in the shade of our apple tree. She was making thread from a drop spindle, turning a clump of wool into fine strong yarn.  

It was almost noon when we heard shouts coming from outside. I hurried out into the street. My neighbours were pointing north, and I saw something like a fat white thread of wool rising up on the horizon.

My father came out a moment later, leaning on his walking stick. 

The smell of rotten eggs filled the air and soon ash was falling. The sky was getting darker, as when clouds gather. 

That was when I remembered the dream I’d had the previous night. The white-hot ghost of Achilles had been chasing me. 

I knew it was a warning, sent by the gods.  

‘We must go!’ I told Pater about my dream. ‘We must get away as fast as we can.’ 

‘But how?’ he replied. ‘I can only walk with the help of a stick and your mother can barely walk at all.’ Then he grasped my shoulders. ‘Son, you are fast. Save yourself. Run! Your mother and I have lived a good life. If it is the will of the gods, we will die a good death.’ 

‘No!’ I cried. ‘I will not leave you.’ 

If had been strong I might have carried my parents, one under each arm. But despite my name I am not powerful. I am fast, yes, but also skinny. 

Then I had an idea. ‘Your old chariot!’ I cried. ‘I can pull you in the chariot!’ 

When my father was young, he had raced chariots and he still kept his favourite in our storeroom. It was made of wicker, leather and beechwood and was very light: like a basket on wheels. 

‘Put on all your jewellery!’ I cried to my mother. ‘Pater, get anything valuable that we can easily carry! And bring some food!’ 

A moment later my aged parents stood in the small chariot as I pulled them out the front door of our house. 

Ash covered the pavement and street. People were already fleeing, carrying their belongings on their backs, holding children by the hand. Some had cushions tied to their heads to keep off the falling embers. Others wore napkins over their noses and mouths to keep out the ash. 

I hurried back inside and soaked two cushions in water from the fountain, then tied them to my parents’ heads. For myself I soaked my hooded woollen cloak in water and put that on. 

Then I grasped the two side beams of the chariot and pulled. 

At first it was easy enough, but soon I was coughing and wheezing. I was not used to pulling the weight of two people, even old ones who are not very heavy. 

As we reached the town gate, I had an idea. 

At the stables we could hire a horse to pull us. 

But as we reached the stables, I saw others had the same idea. 

The only animal left was a stubborn looking mule with a badly swollen front left hoof. 

‘That one’s Podagrosus,’ said the stable owner. ‘I’ll let you have him for a thousand sesterces. But I doubt you’ll get him to move.’ 

One thousand sesterces was a huge amount to pay for a lame mule, but I had no choice. I reached into my belt pouch and pulled out ten gold coins, almost all our savings. The stable owner greedily took them, then bit one to make sure it was pure. A moment later he was hurrying out of the stable. 

Left alone, pulled the chariot over to the mule, hitched him to it with a wooden yoke lying nearby, then grasped his bristly mane and tugged. 

‘Come on, Podagrosus,’ I said. ‘Let’s go.’ 

The mule gave me a sideways look but did not budge.  

I took my father’s walking stick and beat his rear. 

It was like beating a marble statue of a mule. The creature did not even twitch. 

‘Stop, Maximus!’ called my mother, who has a soft heart. ‘Here!’ She reached down the front of her stola and pulled out a red apple. 

‘Look, Podagrosus,’ I said, holding it up. ‘A nice juicy apple, fresh from the tree in our garden.’ 

Podagrosus took a step forward. 

Holding out the apple, I backed through the open doors of the stable and onto the street. 

Podagrosus followed. 

I had done it! 

Suddenly the mule lunged forward and closed his teeth on the apple.

‘Ow!’ I cried. ‘He almost bit my hand off!’ 

‘I have one more,’ said my mother. ‘Use it wisely.’

‘Think, Maximus!’ I told myself. ‘Think!’ 

Then I had an idea. ‘Mater,’ I said. ‘Do you have any thread?’ 

‘Always!’ She pulled her spindle from down the front of her tunic and I took two arms’ lengths of strong woollen thread. I tied one end to the stem of the apple and the other to the end of my father’s walking stick. Then I stuck the other end of the stick into the yoke of the mule so that the apple hung about half an arm’s length before his nose. 

Podagrosus limped forward, always going for the apple but never quite able to reach it. 

By the time his swollen foot prevented him from going any further we had made it beyond a spur of the Milky Mountains near Stabiae, and I knew we would be safe. 

‘Well done, Podagrosus!’ I said and gave the tired mule the apple he had been straining after for three hours. ‘I promise we will take good care of you for the rest of your life. And all the apples you can eat.’ 

The End

Friday, January 24, 2020

Tabula Rasa

The lower leaf is a 'tabula rasa' or blank tablet
The Latin Programme has just announced a competition for kids to write a story or poem under 500 words. You have until 24 April 2020 and the pieces can tackle any theme and take any form as long as they use the Latin phrase ‘tabula rasa’ as a starting point. First prize is £100 in book tokens with two £25 runners up. And I am one of the two judges! 

But what is a TABVLA RASA? 

In Roman times, a ‘tabula rasa’ was a clean writing tablet. 

The word ‘rasa’ is a participle from the verb ‘rado’, I shave or smooth. We get the word razor from it. 

The word ‘tabula’ means a board or plank. We get the word tablet from it. 

Romans often made writing tablets from small, thin wooden planks coated with beeswax. They would then inscribe letters in the wax, using a the sharp end of a stylus made of metal, bone or wood. By the way, we get the word stylus from Latin ‘stilus’, which means stick, stake or pointed instrument

When Romans wanted to erase the words they had written on a tablet, they would use the flat end of the stylus to smooth the wax. Some frescoes show a triangular-shaped spatula that could be warmed and then pulled across the wax to smooth it and make it blank. 

Spatula (far left) on a fresco from Pompeii via @LiberalDespot

So the most literal meaning of ‘tabula rasa’ is a smoothed or ‘shaved’ wax tablet. 

Lupus with wax tablet holder (2007)
In my Roman Mysteries, one of my characters can’t speak so he uses a wax tablet to communicate vital messages. 

Maybe your hero needs a tablet to communicate like Lupus.

The phrase ‘tabula rasa’ has a metaphorical meaning as used by philosophers such as Aristotle and John Locke: a blank mind. Locke believed babies were born with a totally blank mind and that the things that happened after their birth were etched into their brains forever. 

So ‘tabula rasa’ can also mean blank mind

Maybe your hero has amnesia.

stylus and scraper via Peter Lorimer
‘Tabula rasa’ can be applied to the type of slate on which Victorian schoolchildren wrote with chalk, like a mini blackboard. For this reason ‘tabula rasa’ can also mean a clean slate like when all your debts (the money you owe) or sins (things you’ve done wrone) are cancelled and you can ‘start fresh’. 

Maybe your hero has a chance to start fresh. 

Finally, a fun idea for a mystery or spy story based on the phrase ‘tabula rasa’ is an ancient method of delivering a secret message where you write a message on the wood tablet, then put the wax on top to hide it. That way the writing tablet looks blank but actually contains a hidden message. 

re-enactor writing on a replica tablet of beeswax coloured with soot
Maybe your hero must get a message to a rescuer. Or intercept a message from a spy. 

So there are lots of meanings of ‘tabula rasa’. You might even think of a new one. 

Just make sure you put that phrase somewhere in your entry! 

HERE is the link to the competition. And HERE is a link to some ideas for how to start your story... Good luck! I cant wait to read your entries.